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Elizabeth Darling

Specialised Subjects

Psychology, Quantitative Methods, Social Policy, Sociology, Statistics

Public policy & administration, social & political theory, governance & ethics in the public domain, business strategy & management, developmental psychology, social psychology, cognitive psychology, personality & individual differences, research methods and statistics in psychology, existential psychology.

I have a BA (Honours) degree in Social Science and Administration (2:1) from the University of London. Whilst working on large public finance projects within KPMG Corporate Finance I qualified as a Chartered Public Finance Accountant. Most recently I graduated from a UK University with a MSc in Psychology, for which I achieved a distinction. My research project for this degree was in the field of existential psychology. I have experience with SPSS and gained a distinction for my paper in research methods and statistics in psychology. I have a particular interest in forensic psychology, working quite extensively with victims of crime on a voluntary basis.

Critically evaluate how psychologists have responded to Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. Refer to research and theory from three different domains.


Piaget used his stage theory to describe children’s cognitive development, seeing them as inherently active creatures, motivated from within to explore and interact with their world: “The Piagetian child is a self-regulating, organised whole as he strives to maintain equilibrium both within himself and with the environment” (Miller, 2011, p. 68).

Some of the criticisms adduced at Piaget are common to his ideas across the board. For example, Piaget’s view is that a child’s cognitive growth consists of finding solutions to problems by applying logical rules; once these rules are ‘learned’ they can be applied in any area (something Piaget labelled ‘horizontal decalage’). The problem here comes when one considers children who demonstrate an understanding of a particular rule but then fail to apply it to other areas, such as the earlier solution of transitive inferences concerning length than those concerning weight (Carpendale, 2000).

Another such example, is the evidence found that infants are much more cognitively capable than Piaget suggested: “…statements of the form “Children of age N cannot understand X” generally have proved to be wrong” (Siegler, 1996, p. 12). Baillargeon (1987) found that children as young as 3½-months of age have a notion of object permanence – much younger than Piaget’s 12- to 18-months of age. (Interestingly, a 1998 paper by Meltzoff and Moore called into question such findings, suggesting that the preferential-looking posited as evidence by Baillargeon actually assesses processes other than knowing about invisible objects. Such as Baillargeon’s study nonetheless greatly called into question Piaget’s beliefs).

This essay will consider researchers’ evaluations of Piaget’s theorising in three different domains: imitation, attachment and moral development. Aside from the broader criticisms against Piaget’s views such as those cited above, more specific appraisals will be considered in each area.

Piaget on imitation

Central to Piaget’s theory was that deferred imitation (the ability to reproduce the behaviour of an absent person) does not occur until around 18- to 24-months of age, during the sixth substage of the sensorimotor period. At this time, when a child is able to actively interpret the psychological states and subsequent behaviour of another, and then use this to understand the relationship between itself and the world, Piaget said they were able to form mental representations (Shaffer & Kipp, 2010). This enables them to practice deferred imitation as they can hold the image of a person and the action performed in their minds, until the imitation opportunity presents itself.

Whilst ‘theory of mind’ was not a concept used by Piaget, his discussions around deferred imitation suggested a developmental awareness and ordering which has led to much debate. The criticism here is a general one: that much younger children than Piaget suggested have been found to have the capacity to imitate. Over thirty years ago, Meltzoff and Moore (1977) presented infants aged between 12-21 days with four different adult facial gestures. They concluded that these children were indeed able to imitate. Later, researchers Collie & Hayne (1996) used two experiments with an infant activity board to show that children as young as 6-months of age exhibit deferred imitation.

There have, of course, been counter-criticisms to such findings. Jones (2006) used auditory stimuli to assert that the ‘imitation’ of tongue protruding (as used by Metzoff and Moore (1977)) is simply a general response to interesting stimuli. Anisfeld (2005) similarly said that due to a confounding variable of the type of tongue protruding used in testing, their results are “indirect and weak” (Anisfeld, 2005, p. 114).

Another study which apparently ‘disproved’ Piaget’s theory is that by Klein and Meltzoff (1999). This showed that infants as young as 12-months old are able to recall and imitate an event following a delay. Anisfeld (2005) tells us however, that deferred imitation is not proven here; instead, she asserts, it shows simply that known behaviours in infants (such as pushing, pulling, stirring and banging things) are likely to be performed on new objects, and not that there is any linkage between performance and their associated memory of it.

Interestingly, recent research has gone on to show a difference between a child’s memory for events and its memory for locations (i.e. of objects), something that Piaget did not appear to consider. Lukowski, Garcia and Bauer (2011) were the first authors to test both using the same experimental method, finding that it was harder for younger children to remember where objects were put than to remember an interaction between a stuffed rabbit and some stacking rings. Regardless of this, however, the authors found that even 13-month-old infants were able to recall both location and event information; again younger than put forward by Piaget.

Piaget on attachment

Whilst Piaget did not discuss the concept of attachment specifically, his ideas were used to underpin attachment theory and later, to help explain differing attachment styles in children. As a cognitive-developmental theorist, Bowlby (1969) leant heavily on Piaget’s ideas in suggesting that an infant’s ability to form attachments partly depends on their level of cognitive development (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2012).

In order for an infant to form an attachment with a person, they must recognise them as being permanent. It would, after all, be very difficult for a child to become attached to someone who no longer exists each time they disappear from view (Schaffer and Kipp, 2010). Piaget claimed that person permanence, i.e. the knowledge that a person continues to exist even when out of sight, precedes one of his most important concepts – that of object permanence (Piaget, 1954).

For Piaget, this idea of the chronology of permanence (something he terms ‘positive decalage’) was based on the assumption that human beings are simply more ‘interesting’ than objects for children, and has been far less tested by researchers than the idea of object permanence (Krojgaard, 2005). The problem with applying Piaget’s views to those of attachment are twofold: first, is the question of whether Piaget is right about positive decalage, and second, are the findings that object permanence actually occurs earlier than the 12- to 18-months suggested by Piaget (e.g. Baillargeon, 1987). If Baillargeon’s findings of 3½-months (for example) are more correct, and person permanence occurs even sooner, the emergence of infant attachments at the 7- to 9-month mark does not fit this timescale (Schaffer & Kipp, 2010).

A number of early studies aimed to provide evidence for positive decalage (e.g. Bell, 1970; Lamb, 1973). These experiments have since been criticised for confounding variables in one or more aspects, such as the use of familiar persons as against unfamiliar objects in testing (Jackson, Campos and Fischer, 1978). In his review, Krojgaard (2005) concluded that since, in testing, infants’ more successful search for persons compared to inanimate objects is not a generally found characteristic, Piaget’s positive decalage is “potentially misleading” (Krojgaard, 2005, p. 76).

In terms of the second problem with the application of Piaget’s theory to attachment, a study by Chazan (1981) found a relationship between a mother’s stimulation of her infant and the child’s development of person permanence, using infant subjects aged between 3- to 7-months. Positive decalage resulted when mothers were responsive to their children, initiated developmental progress and expressed positive feelings. Conversely, when mothers were distant, did not initiate activities and discouraged communication, negative (or no decalage) patterns developed.

Such evidence calls into question the chronology of both object/person permanence and the relationship between permanence and attachment in infants.

Piaget on moral development

Piaget’s work on moral development focused on two aspects: respect for rules and conceptions of justice (Piaget, 1932). By telling children stories and asking them to then make moral decisions, he proposed a stage theory of moral development. This includes a premoral period (rules do not exist) and two subsequent moral stages of heteronomous morality (ages 5 to 10 years) and autonomous morality (from ages 10 or 11 years).

With regard to moral development, Piaget was a ‘rationalist’; that is, someone who stresses that moral knowledge and moral judgement are reached primarily through a process of reasoning and reflection. One weighs up issues such as harm, fairness, justice and rights before passing judgement on another person. Haidt (2001) has criticised this approach on the basis that new evidence indicates moral judgements to be one process (among many) which is far more automatic than was appreciated in Piaget’s time. He therefore proposed an alternative model of social intuition, whereby moral judgement is based on the intuitive feeling of knowing that something is wrong. In order to explain this feeling, the social intuitionist then “…becomes a lawyer trying to build a case rather than a judge searching for the truth…In the social intuitionist model it becomes plausible to say “I don’t know, I can’t explain it, I just know it’s wrong”” (Haidt, 2001, p. 814).

Once again in this domain, Piaget has been criticised for under-evaluating children. For example, research by Yuill and Perner (1988) showed that children from the age of 3 years are able to make appropriate distinctions between intended and accidental outcomes when the accident was unforeseen. An interesting and more recent study showed that 3 year olds are not only able to grasp the intentions behind harmful (as against helpful or neutral) behaviour, but that they subsequently behave differently towards the person causing harm. Participants “…selectively decreased their prosocial behavior toward the actor if and only if she could be held morally responsible for her actions … even if she was unsuccessful in causing harm” (Vaish, Carpenter & Tomasello, 2010, p. 1667). Both of these studies show children to be more morally developed at a much younger age than Piaget suggested – actually during his ‘premoral’ period when according to him there should be no moral awareness at all.

A further criticism follows from Piaget’s proposition that the peak of moral development occurs in adolescence. Since it is not discussed by Piaget, authors McDonald and Stuart-Hamilton (1996) purport the assumption that moral reasoning therefore remains stable throughout the rest of one’s (adult) life. Their study compared three age groups (teenage; 50-65 and 65+), and found significant differences in moral performance between them. Younger subjects consistently achieved lower levels of performance on moral reasoning tasks, leading to their conclusion that although there are differences in different areas of moral reasoning, “the relationship with age is not uniform in its direction” (McDonald & Stuart-Hamilton, 1996, p. 402).

A final criticism in this area, is Piaget’s heavy bias towards the practices of Western culture (e.g., the universality of rights and entitlements) without a clear explanation on how the theory can be applied to non-Western cultures. As Haidt, Koller and Dias (1993) point out, Piaget’s morality is limited to the well-being of other people; moral issues are intrinsically personal and actions are judged by their consequences for others. Using participants from the United States and Brazil, the authors tested using issues and actions on the basis of their ability to offend, with no resultant victim. They found that US citizens of high socio-economic status exhibited a harm-based morality very much in line with Piaget’s theorising. Brazilians, however, particularly from low socio-economic groups, moralised on stories containing disgust and disrespect, even when they were perceived to be harmless. They concluded that the domain of morality does, in fact, vary cross-culturally.

In conclusion

Piaget’s theory of cognitive development is one of the best known and most respected. It extends from a child’s first neonate days, through infancy and into adolescence, providing an explanation of topics as diverse as memory, problem solving, perspective taking and scientific reasoning (Siegler, DeLoache & Eisenberg, 2010). Analysts have both criticised and revered Piaget’s theorising, not least because of the empiricism which resulted from his observations and descriptions of children.

Ultimately however, the worth of Paiget’s contribution to our knowledge of the characteristics of intelligent activity in children is rarely denied. As one author puts it, “Although many aspects of Piaget’s theory are now questioned, no one denies the valuable contribution he made to our understanding of the thinking processes of both children and adults” (Smith, Cowie & Blades, 2003, p. 390).

Reference List

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